War to the Rescue?

Margaret Somerville
Originally published as:
"War to the rescue?",
The National Post, April 24, 2003, A16
© Margaret Somerville
Reproduced with Permission

We have been inundated with images of war lately. Our free association in looking at them depends on our background, life experiences, values and beliefs. Most people seemed to take a polarized position "for" or "against" the war in Iraq. I found myself in a small minority in having very mixed feelings about its justification.

Whichever side we take on the decision to go to war, whether to support or oppose it, we must believe that our side is "right and good" and our opponents' "wrong and evil." But the ethical reality is much more complex.

Two particularly arresting photographs from the Iraq war brought to mind the concept of rescue, one possible justification for war as a last resort.

In one, a U.S. military physician sat facing the camera with a small Iraqi girl lying across his arms. He had given medical assistance to the child. All of the other troops in the photograph were behind him, with their backs to the camera, continuing their advance on Baghdad.

The other photograph showed a big American soldier cradling a tiny newborn Iraqi baby in his hands. His blackness and the baby's whiteness added drama to the photograph, but it also visually symbolized an immense "stranger gap" in past human history -- the distinctions we made on the basis of colour and race. Being a Good Samaritan requires us to cross that gap, to see the other as like us, to have empathy for them. But can you be a Good Samaritan when you have helped to create the situation requiring rescue?

At the same time, we were following the story of Private Jessica Lynch, the American soldier taken prisoner-of-war, who was dramatically rescued from a hospital. That rescue was possible because a Good Samaritan, an Iraqi lawyer whose wife worked at the hospital, at great danger to himself advised the American troops of her whereabouts and gave them information essential to carrying out the rescue successfully.

And, over the course of the war, we have heard language of "rescuing Iraq." There is a universe of difference between rescuing Iraq and invading Iraq. But which has taken place? Are the Americans and their allies rescuers or invaders? I find this an agonizing question.

The language and metaphors we choose to describe what we do, have immense impact on our assessment of the ethics of our conduct. We fashion cloaks from words and images and place them on events. These cloaks deeply affect our perception of those events, our moral intuitions about them, and what we see as ethical responses to them.

The international community has accepted that rescue can justify otherwise unacceptable intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. Relatively recently, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution recognizing a right to intervene to bring humanitarian assistance to people affected by armed conflict within a state. Subsequently, the duty to do so has been articulated.

With hindsight we can see that the international community failed to fulfill such a duty in the Rwandan genocide and, in some horrible instances, in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Is Iraq comparable in any relevant way?

Rescue is a response to a state of necessity. That means actions that would normally be prohibited can be justified, because they are the only reasonable way to avoid a greater harm. But the justification is difficult to apply when the harms and benefits flow to different people, as in the Iraqi war. And a justification of necessity requires that we must not have created the situation of necessity demanding rescue. The United States (and France and Germany) provided Saddam Hussein's regime with technology that could be used for military purposes, thereby contributing to the situation of necessity faced. But the United States could characterize their provision of this technology as simply a terrible mistake, which must now be remedied through rescuing the Iraqi people from that sadistic regime.

Which characterization we adopt will depend on what we see as the Americans' and their allies' motives in going to war and what weight we attach to any conflicts of interest that may taint them. The failure to rescue others whose lives are similarly threatened by a political regime -- as is true in some African countries -- when there would be no benefits for the rescuer other than "doing good" and especially where it would not involve war, could affect our assessment of the motives involved in Iraq.

The commonality between war and rescue is that warriors and rescuers often suspend fears for their own life and safety. But they differ in an important respect. In order to be able to kill other humans, we must disconnect from and de-personalize them, see them as not like us, the enemy -- often as monsters. Rescue requires exactly the opposite -- that is, identification with the victims. At first glance, there seems, therefore, to be an inherent paradox in going to war in order to rescue. But the enemy -- the Saddam Hussein regime -- and the victims -- the Iraqi people -- are not the same.

The fundamental issue -- and another way to phrase the "rescue question" -- is whether stopping horrific breaches of human rights should prevail over state sovereignty, even when armed conflict must be used as a last option to achieve that goal. If human rights are to mean anything, they must prevail.

War as rescue does not end with the war. If rescue is our justification, the international community has ethical obligations to ensure that, once war ends, all possible steps are taken to make post-war reality conform to the promise of rescue. The obligations that this promise engenders far exceed what would be required in a non-rescue situation.

Finally, even when war as rescue is justified, there are some tragedies we cause and cannot remedy that must remain burned in our memories. The heart-rending photograph of the 12-year-old Iraqi boy who lost both his arms in the bombing of Baghdad captures one.